The Penance of Reverend Gastrell
Reverend Francis Gastrell sat in the velvety enclosure of his carriage, a large book upon his lap. The jostling of the coach had grown wearisome on the two-day trip to Warwickshire, but the journey would soon end. Edward, his cousin, had written that by the time Gastrell arrived all would be accomplished. With Edward’s help, God’s work would be done.
Gastrell opened the book on his lap.
Published according to the True Original Copies.
Gastrell stared at the engraved portrait of the poet. Already Gastrell had destroyed relics at New Place, the site where Shakespeare had died. This golden calf, Shakespeare, Gastrell determined, would soon be destroyed.
‘Tis my penance.
Pushing aside the curtain, Gastrell saw Edward’s house in the distance. Surrounded by greenery, the stone country house rose in splendor above the landscape. Seeing the home where he’d spent summers as a boy raised his spirits. Gastrell closes his eyes and prayed.
Lord, Thy servant shall not disappoint.
“Francis! How do you, my coz?”
Gastrell laughed with pleasure at the sight of his dear cousin, Ned. Born in the same year, they had been raised together. Now older gentlemen, their protruding bellies confirmed their prosperity.
“Quite well now I’ve arrived,” Gastrell said. “The journey tires one so.”
“Refreshments await! Then to business.” Edward leaned closer as they walked to the dining room, murmuring, “I say – it took some doing to find men willing to disturb a cursed grave.”
“For the love of God, Ned!” Gastrell admonished in a whisper.
“Sorry,” Edward said. “It can wait.”
Entering the dining room, Gastrell saw roast mutton, pigeon pie, bread, cheese, peas, and parsnips, all adorning the table.
Edward called to a servant, “The wine, please. Then, leave us.”
Gastrell prayed over the food.
“We thank thee, oh Lord, for thy bounteous gifts. In recompense, thy deeds we ever strive to accomplish through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
Gastrell tucked in, careful not to drip on his cassock. Quivering with anticipation, he asked, “Now, what happened?”
Edward nodded, “Ay, three men agreed to do it. It took much indirection to bring them round to the matter. I must tell you – their price is no small matter.”
“All men have their price,” Gastrell said. “Reassuring, is it not?”
“So say we all.” Edward tilted his cup toward the Reverend in a mock toast. “They studied the task at length – said the best way was to chisel out the ledger stone, from the top to midway first. If need be, they would dig and assess – perhaps remove the remaining stone. They would exhume the body, return the earth and stone, all in time for morning services. Tonight, they will deliver the bones of Master Shakespeare to us.”
Glory be to God!
Gastrell turned over the details in his mind.
“But how will his pilgrims know that his grave has been emptied if your men returned the earth and stone?”
“You want people to know?” Edward said, aghast.
“My dear Ned, that is the point,” Gastrell said. “With Shakespeare’s body gone, his house destroyed, and the precious mulberry tree he is said to have planted chopped down, his worshippers will no longer have their golden calf. They shall return to worshipping the Lord, their God, as they should.”
Edward contemplated his cousin.
“Why is it, my dear Francis, that you hold such contempt for this man? He who has been dead more than a century you cannot claim to be your enemy.”
“Shakespeare is the enemy of God,” Gastrell sputtered. “If you had lived in his house, as I have, if you had seen these pilgrims and their worship of his tree – I tell you, Ned, more men have been damned for their worship of Shakespeare than for the rest of their sins combined.”
Edward sipped his wine and cleared his throat. “Even so?”
Gastrell felt the rage of the past begin to boil within him again.
“You think me mad,” Gastrell said. “But Stratford-upon-Avon sanctifies this poet. They welcome dandies from London, encourage them to stroll in his garden – my garden. At the house I bought! Never a moment’s peace could be had there. Cutting down that hideous mulberry tree, I thought, would discourage them – give me some peace. Ned, they threw rocks at my windows! I had to flee to Lichfield. Then, the council! Even worse. They claimed I owed poor tax, for leaving my servants to live in the house while I was away. I refused to pay, and they threatened imprisonment. The only way I could avoid the tax was to tear the God forsaken house down.”
Edward said, “‘Tis been an expensive waste, buying Shakespeare’s home. Why did you buy it, my good man? Surely it had not been your mission to destroy false idols at the time. You would have razed the house years ago.”
Gastrell paused, considering whether to admit the truth to Ned – that he, Gastrell, had once loved Shakespeare. How his heart had thrilled at his words. The well-worn stories, reshaped with poetry for the stage – oh, Shakespeare had captured his imagination like nothing else before. Even his commitment to God could not compare to his devotion to this mortal man’s words. Gastrell had bought a folio of the complete works. He’d bought Shakespeare’s house. He longed to read beneath the mulberry tree Shakespeare had planted, to feel closer to his mortal god, to worship this man from Stratford.
Yet Gastrell had soon learned he was not alone in his devotion. Men from London, in profane pilgrimage, came to worship that same god, that same tree, forcing Gastrell to recognize the truth of the matter – the house was purchased, but not owned. As long as a house stood on the site of Shakespeare’s death, the town and its pilgrims would make it their shrine. Cuttings from the tree, walks in the garden, endless munificence of tea and cakes. They had raised a false idol before the one true God, and Gastrell understood – so had he.
He sighed, “It no longer matters why I bought the house. I destroyed it, just as I destroyed the tree. Now, I intend to destroy his grave. His body will be gone, and the town will have no more claim to him.”
“But the home of his father, where he was born?”
“Turned to an alehouse,” Gastrell said. “No one goes there for him.”
“Will die out. Without their shrines, no one will travel to attend such pish-posh. The town alone cannot sustain it.”
Edward shrugged and continued eating. They were quiet for a time. Gastrell impassioned, Edward indifferent.
It will work, Gastrell thought. I will erase his memory from the town, and perhaps then God will reward me for bringing His people back to worship Him. I shall be a new Moses, carrying out God’s commandments – Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt make no idols.
The servant returned. “Pardon, my Lord. Some men are here to see you.”
“Indeed,” he said. “Francis, shall we?”
“Well met, good sirs,” Edward said to his guests. Their clothes told a tale – poor men, though strong, whose moral levity allowed for such commissions.
“Good evening, your worships,” one said, as they stood to greet their betters.
“That will be all,” Edward said to the servant.
“So,” Gastrell said. “To whom do I owe the gratitude of the Almighty?”
“All of us done it,” said the man in the middle. “Digging graves is a sort of specialty. This is our first time thieving ‘em.”
“But have you succeeded in your task?” Gastrell asked.
The men looked at each other, and the shortest of them produced a satchel, rounded with its contents.
Gastrell, puzzled, took the satchel and sat down, motioning for them to do the same.
“We done what your Lordship and us planned. Took off the ledger stone straight away. No coffin there ‘t all. Just earth. ‘Twas a shallow grave. Master Shakespeare had his-self buried in a winding cloth. ‘Twas no deeper than me arm.”
Gastrell looked in the satchel, finding a skull with hollow eye sockets staring up at him.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Gastrell exclaimed. He nearly dropped the satchel in his surprise.
“Expecting a kitty?” the leader said. The men laughed, and Gastrell reddened. “You asked us to rob a grave, m’ Lord.”
“A little respect, sir,” said Edward. “You are in the presence of a man of God.”
“Yes, m’ Lord.”
“Where is the rest of the body?” Gastrell asked.
“Beg your pardon, Reverend – the rest comes with payment.”
Gastrell passed the satchel to Edward and reached for his purse. Before he could open it to count out their earnings, the leader pulled a knife from his boot.
“No need to count it, your Reverence,” he said. “We’ll trust it’s enough.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Gastrell said.
The other two men pulled out their knives as well and stood over Gastrell like butchers regarding a pig.
“Ned, call your guard,” Gastrell said. “These thieves don’t dare risk damnation by harming a man of God.”
“You there,” said the lead thief to Edward. “Take his purse and give it to me. Make a sound, and you die.”
Edward did as he was told, shaking his head slightly at Gastrell, warning him not to resist.
When the lead thief had the purse, he said, “Now, Reverend Gastrell, you take us for fools and vagabonds, but allow me to introduce our company. My name is David Garrick –”
“The actor?” Gastrell exclaimed.
“The same,” Garrick replied. “Your Reverence may also know Master William Evetts, though perhaps, not without his wig.”
“Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon,” Evetts said with a slight bow.
“And finally,” Garrick said, “David Lewis of Malvern Hall, High Sheriff of Warwickshire. Forgive our costumes, your Worship. I thought our daily attire would give us away.”
Gastrell looked at their tattered clothes, stunned.
“How can this be?” Gastrell asked. “Ned? What is this?”
Edward folded his arms across his chest, still holding the satchel.
“I’m sorry, Francis.”
“Ned?” Gastrell cried. “How could you betray me? After –”
“Oh, peace, man. How else could one cure you of this obsession? You have gone too far with this Shakespeare business. By heaven, you would have us all cursed.”
Gastrell looked at his cousin enraged.
“You have all been possessed by the devil,” Gastrell cried. “There is only one true God, and he is not your poet!”
“Shakespeare is not our God,” the Mayor said. “‘Tis you who have called him so. We merely respect his wishes to be left undisturbed. You know the rhyme on the grave:
“Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
The actor leaned forward to whisper in Gastrell’s ear, “‘Course, the man said nothing of his skull. It’ll be brilliant for Hamlet.”
Gastrell roared and lunged for the satchel, still held by Edward. Evetts, Lewis, and Garrick wrestled Gastrell to the ground.
“You fools!” Gastrell cried. “You will burn for this!”
“Reverend Gastrell,” said the Sheriff, “you are hereby banished from County Warwickshire. Your property therein is forfeit, and should you dare whisper of this attempt to desecrate our poet’s grave, we will take measures to see you imprisoned by his Highness’s guard at the Tower.”
Gastrell lay on the ground defeated, tears streaming from his eyes. Amazed, he watched the actor retrieve Shakespeare’s skull from his ignorant cousin.
“But the skull!” Gastrell cried. “Shakespeare’s skull!”
“Foolish man,” the Mayor said. “We borrowed it from the theatre.”
Gastrell looked at Garrick, and the actor winked.
They don’t know.
The Sherriff and the Mayor will not believe that Garrick disturbed the grave. Gastrell sobbed with the burden of the truth. They think me mad, yet Garrick took the skull!
Held aloft in the theatre, Gastrell imagined, the godhead would consecrate the throng of unknowing worshippers. Garrick alone would understand the silent blessing.